Chapter Ten: Prospects for Education

10.4 A Changing Canada, Changing Schools: A Brief Examination of Recent Developments in Public Schooling – Trends and Trajectories

The preceding chapters of this book have drawn attention to a variety of recent changes across a wide range of public school structures and practices – some common to all or most provinces and some more limited to only a few or a single jurisdiction. Given the constitutional designation of individual provinces as the primary authorities for education decision-making outlined in Chapter 2 and the complexities of the education policy development process described in Chapter 3 and elsewhere, any attempt to provide a definitive and comprehensive account of recent developments in Canadian public schooling is likely to be at best partial. To go further to try to predict the trajectories of future changes even more tentative. With this in mind, we suggest here that it is possible, and necessary, to recognize some major patterns of recent developments in Canadian public schooling. We focus on two major patterns—a neoliberal turn in public education, and an attendant (sometimes parallel, sometimes resistant), turn towards equity, diversity, and inclusion.


A Neoliberal Turn in Public Education

Since the end of World War II, Canadian public policies have been largely framed by one of two dominant political-economic ideologies: a Keynesian economic welfare state model that under-pinned national policies throughout the third quarter of the twentieth century; and neoliberalism that has become prominent since the 1980s. Central to the social democratic model of the welfare state developed in Canada, and much of the western world, was a belief in an active and interventionist state role to support economic development, full employment, and the welfare of all its citizens. This was a period that saw the rapid expansion of a variety of welfare systems such as public education and health care while market and corporate activities were bounded by a web of social and political constraints (Gidney, 1999).

Since the early 1980s, a neoliberal restructuring of global political and economic systems has sought to dismantle the Keynesian state model and its social-welfare institutions and to replace it with market-driven, neoliberal state institutions, regulations, and government styles (Harvey, 2005). With the basic assumptions that markets should be the guiding mechanism for all political, social, and economic policies and that the primary role of governments should be to facilitate free markets, neoliberalism has led to the commodification, marketization, and privatization of a broad range of social services, including education.

To date, the character of Canadian public schooling has not been as radically restructured as it has been in countries such as England, the United States of America, or New Zealand. However, recent developments across a broad range of policy issues, already documented in this book, serve to demonstrate the ongoing conflict between these two distinct ideologies, and that Canada has not stood apart from impact of a global neoliberal turn.

Governance: In line with a neoliberal view of education as a private good or commodity rather than a public good, one of the most widely enacted changes to the governance of public education in Canada in recent years has been a centralizing of authority, including taxing authority, at the provincial level. Elected, local school boards across Canada have either had their ability to influence education eroded or, as described in chapter 2, completely abolished and replaced by a highly top-down, bureaucratic system. In the name of cost-savings, increased efficiency, and ‘modernization’, public participation in public education becomes reconstructed into parental choice in a “market” of schools, professional expertise is devalued and deskilled, and curricular focus becomes centred on workforce development (Ball, 2012; Parekh & Gaztambide-Fernández, 2017).

Funding: An “austerity agenda” of smaller governments and lower taxes and a rhetoric of “value-for-money” and efficiency has led to a number of developments in the funding of public education. In some provinces this has involved substantial cuts in public school funding, in others it has meant public schools being tasked with additional responsibilities without the accompanying provincial funding. Elsewhere, schools have seen a tightening of the ways in which funds are allocated to a narrower range of economic priorities. Whereas full public funding was once a touchstone of public schooling today, across the country, alternative “revenue streams” are being expected to play an increasing role. School fees and large-scale school-based fundraising initiatives are becoming an increasingly common part of the public school landscape. International education programs provide another clear example of a large and relatively new source of funding, as well as the commodifying of public schooling. Questions about the potential inequities created between jurisdictions that can, and choose to, recruit international students and those who do not, as well as the impact that such programs have on regular program, to date lack clear answers.

Narrowing the curriculum/Refocusing the purposes of public schooling: Throughout this book, attention has been drawn to the multiple, complex, and competing goals and purposes that are assigned to our public schools. A neoliberal education agenda seeks to prioritize the economic, workforce development purposes of schooling over all others. In Canada this can be seen in the emphasis on skill development and micro-credentialing that is gaining favour, often supported by corporations and the business community that have interests in a skilled workforce. It can also be seen in the increased curriculum attention given to literacy, maths, and science, and the ways in which education policy and practice has been influenced by the results from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted every three years in reading, maths, and science. The OECD itself, as well as many scholars, recognize concerns with using global standardized assessment as stand-alone measures of learning, with most discussions centering on effects on learners and schools; standardization of curricula that does not reflect local or cultural difference; perpetuation of a false homogeneity at the expense of recognition of difference between and within learners, cultures and nations; and the inequities perpetuated by global competition that privileges western ideologies (Sellar & Lingard, 2014; Verger et. al, 2016).

Managerialism and the Restructuring Teacher Professionalism: Managerialism constitutes a form of organizational governance that under neoliberalism sees the institutionalization of private sector/market principles into the public sector and the prioritization of values of efficiency and productivity into public services such as public schooling. In addition to (i) the centralization of power and control, and (ii) an emphasis on outputs rather than inputs and on rankings and league tables mentioned above, Lynch (2014) identifies the close monitoring of employee performance and the widespread use of performance indicators to encourage self-monitoring as a key feature of managerialism and the redefinition of public service provision. Ball (2012) has spoken about neoliberal policy and its impact on teacher practice, pedagogy, and curriculum. MacDonald-Vemic and Portelli (2020) noted that the discourse of neoliberalism has shaped teacher performativity, including the language and enactment of social justice. de Saxe et al. (2020) argue more vehemently that neoliberalism is an “assault on public education,” describing “how educators are delegitimized and deprofessionalized through privatization, education ‘reform,’ and policies that reduce the profession to one that is both technicist and rote, all under the guise of ‘equity’ and ‘social justice’” (p. 52). In recent years in Canada an important illustration of the changing culture around surveillance and performativity can be found in the legislation introduced in a number of provinces that removes principals and vice-principals from their traditional place in provincial teacher associations for the purposes of collective bargaining (see chapter 9). Representing a significant shift from a model of professional collegiality, this shift explicitly institutionalizes and prioritizes the managerial and supervisory oversight expectations of these roles. We can also see its influence on educational policy that is restructuring the role of teacher unions in teacher certification, and growing calls from teacher groups for professional autonomy in the face of changing administrative structures in schools with increased local and provincial accountability measures and standardization platforms. We can also see it in the area of curricula development that is moving further from the purview of teachers and more into provincial committee structures that include representation from corporate (and other) interests.


Other Voices; Other Changes. Resistance to Injustice

In their book on the development of feminism in Canada, Wallin and Wallace (2018) note that the technologies of a neoliberal ideology “confine perspective, reinforce patriarchy, and manufacture a false need for uniformity…. Juxtaposed to this are those who resist the effects of global capitalism and fight against it, often for the sake of environmental sustainability and/or diversity in all of its social forms” (pp. 264-265).  We see this resistance evidenced in the alignment between Indigenous land claims and eco-justice battles over pipelines; in the demonstrations for Black Lives Matter and anti-Islamophobic action that have come out of tragedies perpetrated on racialized peoples in Canadian communities; and in resistance to for-profit internationalization efforts premised on colonial thinking, Whiteness and cultural appropriation. We note the growing fight for LGBTQI2S+ concerns and allied support of Promote Respect, Inclusion, and Dignity for Everyone (PRIDE). We also note the growing number of eco-justice activists who are ably linking our global eco-crises to the injustices perpetrated on marginalized peoples and communities across the world.

Schools are not absent from these critical movements. At a systems level, we see teachers battling anti-union sentiment and standardized testing; parents and community members taking public stands against government plans for restructuring school systems that would minimize democratic processes; public outcries in support of anti-racist education as new curricula sanitize the experience of Indigenous peoples while at the same time, the bodies of Indigenous children in residential schools reveal themselves through ground-penetrating radar; and youth mobilizing local actions to support the planet and peoples across the world who face violence, hunger, and poverty. Although these conflicts bring with them unrest and discomfort, Wallin and Wallace (2018) also suggest that they provide opportunities for greater global and intercultural understanding as diverse perspectives are shared publicly, often through social media. Most importantly, these instances of resistance to injustices are “often led by youth, who demonstrate to us that our humanity has not been lost. We need to educate ourselves…so that educational spaces do not become sites of ideological polarity, but rather sites of deeper understanding” (p. 265).


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